Phaedra was aware the sun was hanging low in the sky and would be setting shortly. She would need to make haste if she were to avoid the impending gloom once it disappeared into the horizon. Her mind had been full of thoughts of the talking Owl she had met in the Night Garden at dusk yesterday. She had been eager to share with Hepzibah, who smiling, had observed, ‘That garden is full of witch’s weeds, you need to realise that some of those herbs can be hallucinogenic, My Lovely.’
Once again, Phaedra was left confused by the paradoxes she was encountering in Wychwood. Either the veil between worlds really was very thin or else she was suffering serious delusions. As the overgrown dirt track meandered downhill, her eyes were firmly fixed upon her next step in an attempt to avoid stumbling on the loose pebbles. Nimbly side stepping one of the many offerings left by an equine traveller who had preceded her on the ramble, Phaedra looked up as a glint of light caught the corner of her eye. Stopping in her tracks, she became aware of a perfect circle of chestnut trees as she watched the sunlight dappling golden light on the rich green leaves. The branches slowly swayed to the music of a gentle breeze, leaves quivering and dancing to the soft low hum of the wind. Golden light twinkling and sparkling on the rich verdant leaves and the deep brown nuts that littered the floor, cracked open from their protective spiky casings.
Gently stepping over the fallen harvest, Phaedra answered their invitation and stepped within the circle of trees, noting by the girth of their trunks and the strength of the long outstretched branches, that these were indeed Grande Dames of the woodland. Their age and wisdom were apparent from their gnarled and knotted yet strong proud and beautiful trunks. Their outstretched limbs intertwining and interconnecting with each other, embracing each other in an intricate lattice work of wood which seemed to grow tighter and more close knit as Phaedra moved to the centre,
‘Ah, the circle is cast!’ she thought.
Within their protective conclave she became aware of a quiet communication, first between the whispers of the wind, and then between each sister tree. With a jolt, she realised that the trees were speaking not only to each other, but also to her, to Phaedra! They were imbuing her with a sense of themselves, of what it felt like to have roots that sank deep down into the verdant rich dark soil, their root systems mirroring the branches above, all interconnected and intertwined. Phaedra felt tingles in the soles of her feet and with a start realised that she had sunk ankle deep into the earth, but she did not feel any fear, just an awareness that her toes; the bones and nervous system and veins seemed to be growing and extending beyond the confines of her flesh.
She was growing roots!
Roots that meandered through the earth, touching, connecting, wrapping around those of the trees that surrounded her, and it felt good. Phaedra raised her arms up high in sheer joy, and once again the tingle, and her fingers seemed to elongate, the flesh, veins, bones, nervous systems stretching, stretching up to the tall branches, connecting, weaving, latticing into those of her sisters around her, for now Phaedra felt at one in the circle of the Horse Chestnut sisters.
Above her upturned face, the sun in a final swan song, burst through the density of the leaves, bathing Phaedra in a golden light. It felt so good to pull the light of the sun into her body. She felt it travel through her limbs and trunk, and then as the sun sank on the horizon she became aware that all was suddenly dark. From the blackness of this void a light appeared, whirling before her eyes, as its motion slowed to a standstill, there hanging in the nothingness was a perfect golden hexagon. And within the six points of the star, a silver tree was transposed, its branches perfectly fitting the three upper points of the star, and its root system stretched out in symmetry over the lower three points of the star. Then a blinding flash of light in the centre of her brain and the symbol seemed to be absorbed through her crown chakra with the words,
‘As Above, So Below.’
In that moment in time, Phaedra knew the cosmic synergy of heaven and Earth and the importance of the trees as fully sentient beings upon the Earth, working in Divine Service of Source.
Then nothingness, the void.
The loud chattering of the birds stirred her to her senses. Phaedra was surprised to see the Sun was rising, no doubt awoken from her slumber by the sweet call of the birdsong.
She was lying curled up on a carpet of springy moss and sweet smelling chamomile, under the protection of one of the huge Chestnut trees. Stirring to remember how she had come to be here, a whirl of thoughts flooded her mind and senses…feelings of being one with the trees, of having roots that stretched deep down into Gaia’s warmth and received sustenance and grounding; of having strong branches that stretched heavenwards. She felt the warmth of the sun bringing life giving energy down through her body, she recalled the feelings of pleasure of having beautiful leaves, and bearing flowers and fruit that in turn delighted and nourished. She was pleased by the shelter she gave to the birds of the air, the insects, and creatures of the forest. Of the pleasure of the wood nymphs coming to dance and play, and the heavenly delight of being of service to the Light of Source and beloved Mother Gaia by providing oxygen on the Planet.
As Phaedra stood and stretched, she noticed a young sapling delicately rising from the rich earth just by the strongest and oldest tree. From one of its tender young branches a glint caught Phaedra’s eye. Stretching out her hand, she felt a familiar tingle, and there in her palm was a perfect silver six-pointed star pendant, on which a tree was wrought in gold.
The young tree seemed to whisper on the wind…
‘My gift to you, Mother…’
Phaedra knew her child, laying still within her womb, would be born with the wisdom and strength of the trees.
As the Orchestra struck up the music and the dance floor of the Waldorf Astoria glittered into life, Florence stood up. She reluctantly took the outstretched hand of her long time dancing partner, Old Nick. As he swept her elegantly into the diaphanous throng of chiffon and lace she stumbled. His vice like grip on her arm and steely glare ensured she would not cause him further embarrassment. She flinched and blinked away hot tears of anger and shame. It hadn’t always been like this. They were so in step before…
Florence once thrilled at being in the company of rich and influential Nick Mephistopheles. He wasn’t handsome and his age was indeterminate, but he had charisma and a dark charm. Nick’s business practices were more than shady, but as long as she was on the receiving end of his largesse Florence didn’t give a damn what people said about him. There were rumours he was part of the underworld, they said there were other women but she didn’t care. Florence was a night girl, drawn to danger. Nick’s lifestyle was an aphrodisiac. They said he ruled New York City and went for the jugular of anyone who opposed him. Was she afraid? No, it didn’t seem to worry her, it gave her a rush. She didn’t give a thought that there may be a heavy price to pay for his patronage when their first dance had begun all those years ago.
“What kind of business are you in, Nick?” Florence asked with an engaging smile,
“I’m a people person, a collector,” his reply was enigmatic and further enquiries subdued by the string of exquisite black pearls he draped around her slender neck.
“How can I possibly repay your generosity, kind Sir?” She already knew she would do anything for him. The lavish Manhattan lifestyle was highly addictive for a girl from a Brooklyn brownstone.
“Oh, I guess body and soul should be payment enough, yours and others I send you to collect!” There was a twinkle in his coal black eyes and she thought he had jested. Back then. Back when the dance had begun.
Nick was generous. Florence only had to express a desire and it was hers for the taking, fabulous jewels, designer clothes, the Fifth Avenue apartment and the prestige of being on his arm. All the hedonistic delights the city offered were hers for the taking. New York was his plaything, a bauble in his hand. No one quite knew where Nick’s power came from. No one dared to ask…
Nick liked to work hard and party hard. He liked all eyes on him and he had a ruthless and vindictive streak with rivals in both the ballroom and the boardroom. Florence was a huge asset to his dealings. Nick rewarded most handsomely when she performed. With a Siren’s call her beauty brought victims to Nick’s lair. It was all a game to Florence, well paid with a hint of danger. She liked that. The glitter and glamour were as seductive as hell and Florence willingly checked in all morality and conscience. The years passed and she continued taking to the dance floor and dancing to Mr Mephistopheles tune. No questions asked.
Tonight, there was unease in the air. Florence was tiring of their ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’and told him she wanted out. She told him she wanted more, she wanted love. Nick laughed in her face then grew possessive and wrapping his strong fingers around her neck he drew her close.
“Florence, we have a contract. I own you, body and soul.”
As she tried to pull away he kissed her hard on her ruby lips. There was none of the usual passion, just a stamp of ownership. She shuddered. The ballroom had become a prison and her dancing partner her gaoler. They had sealed the deal a long time ago – When you dance with the devil, there is no way out…
It was time for a new dancing partner. Nick would have to go. As the thought crossed her mind, she saw the Stranger and he saw her. And Nick saw him too. Savagely he grabbed her wrist, and snarled,“Stay with me, Florence. Better the devil you know...”
Florence broke free and without looking back made her way across the empty dance floor. All eyes were on her, but she saw no one only the charismatic stranger. He seemed to emit a numinous light. Music sublimely filled the ballroom and she moved inexorably into his arms.
“Do you want to dance?” she whispered seductively.
“Only, if you are willing to forsake Nick’s protection and come with me to the end of time, Florence.” He brushed her face with beguiling lips and shuddering she realised his mouth was as cold as the grave.
“I will…” she paused looking back at Nick’s table, but he was nowhere to be seen.
As the stranger held out his hand, it dawned on her he knew her name, but she did not know his. Just who was this beguilingly beautiful man? With prescience, he smiled and answered the question swimming in her mind.
As she gasped, he swept her into his arms and onto the dance floor. The Orchestra struck up the music and the plaintive strains of Sibelius’ ‘Valse Triste’ filled the air. The Last Waltz would truly last forever as Florence danced with the devil to the edge of darkness…
I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned places and the fragments of the past lingering in the stale air. Is it the remnants of lost hopes, I sense? Fragments of dreams and burnt out desires? The Croft was one of those places with so many stories to tell and I wanted to hear them.
Tapping into residual energies? It is what I do and I’ve never questioned it, accepting it just ‘is what it is.’ They never leave, those old ghosts from the past, their memories becoming just another layer on the atmosphere. And if they chose to reveal their secrets, as a whisper on the wind, then I have a greedy ear to listen.
I walked over to a small wooden framed window, dirty panes of glass, eyes dully staring without seeing, the wild beauty of the land. The taste of sea salt hung in the air flung up by harsh waves beating down upon soft silver sands. Who stood there, looking out at me looking in? Did they ever wonder what lay on the edge of the horizon, what lay over the sea from Barra to Skye. Intrigued and wanting to know more I approached the door, coated in peeling paint of soft pink and covered in lichen. It beckoned to be opened. I reached out and grasped the iron handle, blackened and rusted with age, expecting it to be cold to the touch. Instead I felt it crackle as a jolt of electricity ran up my arm. The magic had begun, hands from the past were still imprinted on the handle. A melancholy creak and the door opened, allowing me admittance to a forgotten world. Who would be waiting and would they be willing to speak? Would I have too many questions, for which there were too few answers?
And then I heard her! A soft whisper in my ear as gentle as the kiss of a summer breeze.
“I’m still here.”
“Talk to me,” I said, “tell me your story.” And she did.
Flora was her name, a bonny lass with red hair, flowing like molten lava down her slim back. She shyly lifted her head to look at me, her eyes filled with innocent guise, and matching her simple muslin dress, a splash of cobalt blue in a grey place.
The impressions came flooding in, gossamer threads of the fabric of her life. She’d loved him and leaving the comfort and protection of her Father’s castle walls ran away with her Sailor boy, freely crossing over the sea from Skye to be with him in the croft.
Life was harsh but Flora comforted herself when it was cold outside the flames of passion and desire he ignited in her were all she needed. The warmth of his love and the fire burning brightly in the grate would keep bad at bay. Until the fire went out, leaving ashes and dust…
Slowly Flora came to realise she was not enough for her man. She shared him with his Mistress. It was a bitter blow to see his eyes light up when he heard the siren’s call, in a way they no longer did for her. With sad resignation Flora knew, once his Mistress summoned him, he would go. Much as he loved his young wife, when the sea whispered his name, he was lost.
Many a moon tide she stood waiting upon a lonely shore, looking out to sea and praying for his safe return. He would return. He always did once the yearning to be free and sail the seven seas had been assuaged, then he would hold her and love her and she would forgive and forget. Hope burnt brightly within her innocent heart. He was her lover, her friend and husband in the eyes of God above and father of her children yet to be born. Bonny bairns who would play at her feet. Strong sons who one day would go to sea and ease their poverty, such dreams had she!
I sensed the atmosphere change. Anticipation, excitement and the thrill of laying in his arms replaced by a dull dread.
Silence. She was fading.
“What happened, can you tell me?”
Outside the sky was blackening, dark storm clouds approached. I smelt the promise of rain, harsh and bitter.
“Ohh..Flora…” I felt her pain, “Talk to me…”
I heard the rasp of the door swinging open.She had no words left. It was time to go. I took a final look around and followed her out. The croft was empty, love did not live here any more.
The tide was going out and I made haste down to the beach, passing a rocky outcrop of granite monoliths. Had she too passed this way? Were the stones silent sentinels witnessing her silent scream as day became night and night day as she waited, fear descending as a clammy shroud.
At the closing of the day, as the light was fading away, I saw her standing there upon her lonely shore. Calling, calling…
But her love did not hear, for he was lost to the deep embrace of a cold, cruel sea. The siren had called. He would not return.
Her words were carried on the wind over the sea to Skye for no one to hear but me…
“I knew these people…once…It was a long time ago…”
She looked like she needed to talk, some fragmented ghost of a memory rattling around the caverns of her mind seeking to find a voice. So I pulled up a chair and sat down beside her and prepared to listen. After all, it is what I do. Listen. I listen a lot. People tell me things, always have. Seems to come from nowhere, the torrent of words, the secrets and the shames. I never judge. That is for the Man above not me.
A waiter came over. Smartly dressed with slicked back black hair, just a hint of grey kissing his temples and a smile that reached his rich brown eyes. I noted he was deferential without being subservient, in a very European way. I liked him and resolved to leave him a good tip. I saw he liked her, a lot. Did she like him? It was difficult to tell. There was a story hiding behind his smile, but that would be for another time. Right now was her time. She had something to say and I had a strong intuition I needed to hear it.
I ordered a pot of English Breakfast Tea, toast and marmalade, “Make that for two, please,” I glanced at her and she nodded her approval at him.
“Très bon,” he rewarded us both with a smile, hiding just a soupçon of merriment. This man did not take life too seriously at all. He really was very handsome and as he walked away a delicious hint of citrus and spice lingered in the air.
“Mmm,” I sniffed appreciatively “Do I detect patchouli and sandalwood?”
“Indeed you do. Top notes and base notes. Quite enticing, isn’t it? Clive Christian 1872,” she replied with authority and I wondered if she was the one who had gifted him a very fine bottle of cologne.
We sat in comfortable companionship in the beautiful glass roofed Courtyard. Soft pink stucco walls wrapped the restaurant with the elegance of a bygone age. She asked me if this was my first visit to the Wallace Collection. I smiled and told her I often came here to Hertford House and take yet another admiring stroll through the sumptuous rooms of the museum, admiring the works of fine art, especially paintings depicting angels. I told her my Mother had first brought me here as a little girl.
“Mummy are Angels just make believe or are they really real like the elves with their black patent shoes with big silver buckles and fairies with their gossamer wings in my big picture book?” I had made earnest enquiries.
“Indeed they are Evie,” Mummy had replied, “Would you like to see the lovely paintings of the Angels in Hertford House? We shall look at suits of armour and you can see for yourself knights who protected princesses were very real too! We shall have tea and toast and yummy jam when we finish. ”
My Mother always had a special way of making the most magical things sound a natural part of everyday life. I missed her and gazing at my elegant companion momentarily wondered would Mummy have looked just like her if the sickness had not came and took her away much too soon. Would we be sitting here now recalling my delight at the moment I had gazed on the beautiful paintings of Lords and Ladies of long ago. Entranced by the many treasures housed in the Wallace Collection, I had moved from one sumptuous and ornate gallery to the next, each filled with armour, fine porcelain, ornate snuffboxes and gorgeous fireplaces and rococo chandeliers. And I had seen the Angels. And I had believed.
I saw I was under close scrutiny, “I like it here,” I told her, “ I like it a lot. It’s been a long love affair,” I said.
She smiled and told me she loved it too, had been visiting the imposing Georgian house, standing proudly on London’s Manchester Square, for as long as she could remember. She said that she loved the Gainsborough’s and Fragonard’s. She smiled in appreciation as she divulged her favourite painting and said she found Scheffer’s “The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil” hauntingly beautiful. She said it made her cry. She told me she hugely admired the serenity of Velázquez’s black veiled beauty “The Lady with a Fan” and shared she was intrigued by sculptures depicting veiled beauties. She wondered if Raffaele Monti’s emotive statuette really depicted a Circassian slave? Perhaps, she postulated, she was truly free and her beautiful veiled countenance was an allegory for her seeing ‘beyond the veil’ into numinous realms. She said her name was Evelyn and she had a town house close by in Crawford Street, she was a Writer and she was glad of my company. A lot of words as one would expect, but not what she really needed to say.
I shivered involuntarily. Crawford Street was a place I knew well, having grown up in an elegant stucco fronted Georgian house. In different circumstances I would be living there now, but for the premature loss of my darling Mother. That house held many happy memories and I had vowed one day to return, that it would be my home again. Meeting Evelyn was proving to be more than a touch synchronistic.
Our tea and toast arrived.
“Those people…?” I tried to engage her to take my mind away from wandering down dark avenues from the past.
I poured tea, fragrant with freshly pressed leaves, from a pewter pot into our cups and she added the milk and sugar. The toast was good. I ladled on rich yellow butter and a generous helping of deliciously bitter marmalade and as I savoured the flavours I waited for her to speak. You can have an intuition on what they may say, sometimes hear the words before they actually speak them. Then when they do speak, the emotions come in, sometimes softly flowing, sometimes a tidal wave. And I have it all hitting me, sometimes it’s hard to remain inscrutable, to just listen. But it is about them, not me, so they never know I have eyes that look into their distant pasts and possible futures, their right here, right now’s or just how much I know…
She was different. Looking at me quizzically with intelligent eyes, and with a start I realised she was reading me reading her. A feint smile. I winked at her, knowingly. We laughed conspiratorially.
Sunlight, delicately streaming through the glass roof caught her hair. Cool blonde with strands of silver pulled off her face by a black velvet band. A woman of a certain age, but what that age was I would be hard pressed to say. Quietly understated elegance. She wore pearl earrings. Beautiful pearls, soft as moonlight. I admired them.
“Indeed yes, they are beautiful. Tears from the moon.” Her eyes misted. I reached over and covered her hand with mine. A simple gesture, speaks more eloquently and deeply than words ever can. She had long slim fingers tipped with manicured nails varnished the colour of her pale pink pearls. Her hand was surprisingly cold.
“Those people…” I encouraged, knowing the earrings held the key to her story, as did love. Was it lost, unrequited, had her heart been broken or did she carry the heavy weight of human frailty having inflicted pain and hurt on another? I munched my toast waiting for her to reply. The toast here is really very good. My reward for patience just a flicker behind her grey eyes, a wry smile and the deafening sound of silence. Perhaps a guilty conscience lay behind her insouciance? I truly hoped not.
Suddenly I had a very strong desire to know and held her gaze searchingly. I saw the relief in her face as the waiter returned with a fresh pot of tea and she took the opportunity to slip her hand away from mine, the shutters were down. The moment had passed. I got she was uncomfortable with my touch, the warmth of another human reaching out to her. I wasn’t sure if she would tell me her story, or keep her secrets to be shared only with the ghost living in the caverns of her mind. With a start, I realised I could not read her, looking into her eyes all I saw was myself looking back, my pale pink pearls catching rainbows of light as the sun danced through the atrium.
She may well have a lifetime of stories to tell, but I was going to have to live them before Evelyn shared our secrets with me, Evie…